Chance of prompt Hussein trial `remote'

Contradicting Allawi, U.S. official says security, complexity delay tribunal

September 25, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The likelihood that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will be tried anytime soon is "remote," a U.S. official said yesterday, nearly a week after Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said that the trial could begin in October.

The U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the fragile security situation was contributing to the delay because the tribunal could not easily travel in Iraq to investigate Hussein's alleged crimes against his people. They could not visit the sites of mass graves or be guaranteed their personal security, the official said.

The official, who said it was unlikely that Hussein's trial would start this year, could not predict when any of the trials against the former Iraqi leadership could begin. The United States is holding 84 detainees; the Iraqi government has 12.

"These cases proceed at their own pace," the official said.

In his interview Sunday with ABC's This Week, Allawi said, "Roughly speaking, I think October," when asked when Hussein's trial would begin.

He also suggested that some of Hussein's fellow leaders would appear before the tribunal before the former president did.

Allawi said the clear case against Hussein made the trial easier to hold. "It's going to be a very transparent and very just trial. We are going to ensure that. But I don't think it's going to take a long time because the evidence against him is so much. Really, it's overwhelming. So we hope justice will be served," he said.

But the U.S. official said the large amount of evidence the tribunal must sift through would delay the process, not expedite it. The tribunal must decide the scope of their case and then build it, he said.

A group of investigative judges is building the case. When they complete their investigation, they will present it to a trial judge, who will decide whether Hussein should be presented with the charges.

Meanwhile, Salem Chalabi, who once led the special tribunal putting the trial together, said the prime minister was forcing the trial early for political reasons and said he worried the process would not be fair.

"The caretaker government wants to begin the trials, and possibly even conclude them, before the Iraqi elections scheduled for late January because they believe this will help their popularity in the country," Chalabi said in a statement released Thursday. "I am very concerned about this."

He said the interim government concocted murder charges against him to remove him from the tribunal.

Chalabi was charged in the murder of a Finance Ministry official in July, at the same time his uncle, Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, was charged with dealing in counterfeit Iraqi currency. At the time, both men were out of the country.

Both called the charges part of a vendetta against them by U.S. officials who once favored Ahmed Chalabi to succeed Hussein. The counterfeiting charges against Ahmed Chalabi have reportedly been dropped.

Salem Chalabi returned to face the charges this month and was released on bail. He said he was also asked to leave the tribunal.

The U.S. official said he has never heard from Allawi and does not believe the prime minister has placed any pressure on the panel.

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